Chesterton & The Jews (Part I)

gm_2008-nov-decWell, I went and did it. After years of donating to the American Chesterton Society (ACS), I finally joined as a member. I figure the only thing better than charitable donations is charitable donations with benefits; a 20% discount on merchandise at the ACS website and a subscription to Gilbert Magazine, in this case. Yes, I know. A little quid pro quo in your charitable giving is not exactly the Christian ideal, but let’s not quibble about theological distinctions.

As stated above, one of the benefits of joining the ACS is a subscription to their (somewhat) bi-monthly publication, Gilbert Magazine. I was happy to see that my first issue arrived in the mail yesterday, just in time before I head back to North Carolina to spend Christmas with my family. The issue’s title instantly grabbed my attention: “Chesterton & The Jews.” I have heard echos of the charge before, that Chesterton was an “anti-Semite.” I must admit, it’s a charge I’ve always had a hard time believing. Given Chesterton’s good nature, and the fact that he was so greatly loved by his intellectual antagonists, it is hard to see how Chesterton could act so “out of character” toward this one group of people. Nonetheless, all things are possible with human nature, so I was anxious to read the ACS defense of the amiable G.K. Chesterton.

One of the first articles in the magazine is an essay – or rather, a compilation essay – by Chesterton himself wherein he defends himself against the charge of anti-Semitism. But Chesterton is quick to point out that the term “anti-Semitism” is itself misleading – “a feeble and frightened euphemism.” When someone is accused of being an anti-Semite, they are really being accused of hating Jews. Semites are not necessarily Jews, in that a Semite is (according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary) “a member of any of a number of peoples of ancient southwestern Asia including the Akkadians, Phoenicians, Hebrews, and Arabs.” So the very term anti-Semite is a euphemism, as Chesterton rightly points out. He goes on:

One of the ninety-nine reasons for not calling oneself an Anti-Semite is that it is so wretchedly polite and apologetic a thing to be. A man implies that he dislikes the Semite race, he dares not admit that he dislikes the Jewish people… There are people who dislike Jews; though I am not one of them. But I doubt if there are people who dislike Semites.

The main issue that Chesterton takes with the charge of anti-Semitism, is that it is based on a misunderstanding of what he terms “The Jewish Problem”, or worse yet, a blatant double standard of which he will have no part.

When Chesterton says “The Jewish Problem”, this sounds to modern ears a terrible bigotry. But this is only so because the term is sitting there all alone, completely out of context and without proper definition. We infer a bigoted meaning. As Dale Ahlquist (founder and president of the ACS) points out in one of his several essays, this misunderstanding is “even more complicated now because we have to try to discuss it from the opposite side of the event which is the flashpoint for all discussions of anti-Semitism: the Holocaust.” But what Chesterton meant by “The Jewish Problem” was a very real problem indeed. The Jews (prior to 1948) were a nation without a nation. So much for the problem being the mere existence of those “immoral Jews”, which is apparently what is inferred from Chesterton’s “bigoted” term.

To be more specific, “The Jewish Problem”, as Chesterton meant it, was (to quote Ahlquist again):

The “Wandering Jew” was not merely an image of literature but a fact of history. Their settlement throughout Europe was unsettled. Though they often developed a loyalty to their adopted homeland, it was different from the natural loyalty of a native. Complete assimilation was problematic for one of two reasons: Jews would either have to give up their distinctiveness, which would be unfair to Jews, or the nation assimilating the Jews would have to give up its own distinctiveness, which would be unfair and uncomfortable and probably cause resentment in that country. Chesterton said, “Jews must be free to be Jews.” In order for that to happen, he argued, they must have their own homeland, and Palestine was the logical choice.

For Chesterton, a nation was an organic unity, a people who shared the same homeland, the same culture, the same language and literature, the same religion, the same race, the same heritage, and last and least, the same government.

So “The Jewish Problem”, was in fact a real problem, and Chesterton was one of the few who was fearless enough to discuss it with all of his characteristic honesty.


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